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May Day for Sexuality Non-profits: No More Free Riders!

March 8, 2014

May Day is both a distress call and also a celebration of labor. In this post, I’m using it in both ways at once. (Imagine that. I’m bi-connotational.)

Heather Corinna, Executive Director of Scarleteen, announced earlier this week that the organization will need to go on strike on May 1 if they cannot raise enough funds to run sustainably. Scarleteen provides essential medically accurate nonjudgmental sexuality, sexual health and relationship education to teens through online forums, chat, and hotline services. The good people at Scarleteen have been doing this for  something like fifteen years, and every year Corinna reminds us that they can’t do it for much longer without more support. The support trickles in anemically, and Scarleteen has done phenomenal work with very little, making it look like there’s no real problem. But there is, and they’ve hit that point where they can’t continue without a significant increase in sustainable support.

Scarleteen is not alone in this predicament. Organizations like Queers for Economic Justice, National Youth Advocacy Coalition, and Young Women’s Empowerment Project have all gone under in the past few years. It would be foolish to think that here at Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance we don’t face the same pressures and barriers to sustainability.

Why is this sustainable support so hard to come by? I have a few ideas.

  1. The US does not have a culture that places much about “public goods” even though we depend on them daily. Public goods are things we all need or use, but that are provided collectively instead of individually. We don’t want to pay taxes, but we want roads and schools. We don’t want to support public television, but we want Sesame Street for our kids. We don’t want to curb our consumption or our waste, but we want a healthy planet with plenty of clean air and water.
  2. We often get away with being free riders, and so why not keep trying? Most public goods are ones we can enjoy whether or not we contribute. I get to listen to my favorite NPR shows whether or not I support the network or my local station. If I can be a free rider when it comes to NPR or PBS, why not when it comes to Scarleteen or Woodhull?
  3. In the US, we tend to see sexuality as a private matter and so thinking of sexuality services as a public good is doubly hard. Sexuality is not taken especially seriously, and the people who do the work of sexuality education still contend with stigma. Teachers in the US don’t have particularly high prestige to start with, and there is a harmful assumption that anyone who has a sex life is qualified to teach others about sexuality. It’s instructive to think about the implication of the anti-sex-ed message that goes something like: “Oh, that should be up to the parents to do.” By saying that sexuality education should be left to parents we are saying that it is not a serious subject that requires skill or training or specialized knowledge.
  4. Charity giving tends to go to large organizations that can plead poverty without being poor, and whose name recognition and large-scale efforts make them easy to recognize. They also have larger fundraising budgets and can ask for what they need with much louder and more persistent voices.
  5. At the same time, organizations like Scarleteen and Woodhull look like they are bigger than they are, so the people who are familiar with our work often assume we are better off than we are. Talk about a double bind!

The strike that Corinna is proposing is interesting because it isn’t a strike against management, per se. In this case, the strike is really a strike against free riders. It is super important that Scarleteen continue to be able to provide sexuality and relationship education services to all teens regardless of their ability to pay. The service itself must be free to consume. But those who can pay for it need to do that. And those who refer teens really need to pay.

Whatever happens on May 1st – strike or no strike – Corinna at Scarleteen has started a very important conversation. I hope that a strike is averted. But if she does need to strike I will be right beside her, calling for ongoing support for Scarleteen, for Woodhull, and for all the other small, struggling, sexuality-focused nonprofits whose work is at risk. Ultimately, unless those who share our belief in the work we do also share responsibility for paying for that work, the work will need to stop.

So, to turn Marx on his head for a moment: Free-riders of the world, unite! Reach into your pockets and put your money where your values are.

And, to stand him right side up again: Sexuality-rights workers of the world, unite! Join with Corinna and ask yourself for how much longer can you do so much with so little. You have nothing to lose but your exploitation, the devaluing of your super-important labor, and the poverty with which you do it.


Photo of unnamed May Day protester in Madrid used courtesy of Wikipedia user Soman under a Creative Commons license. 


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